William Barnes Profile: This Man Shot a Cop

In a case that may change how we think of justice, the D.A. wants him to go to jail for it. Again

ON THE AFTERNOON of August 21st, 2007, like many afternoons before, an old man named William Barnes dipped his mop into its bucket, lifted it, and swabbed the floor of a Roxborough grocery market: the same motion again and once again, working his way across the surface. He found a certain pleasure in the act, if only because no one forced him to do it.

As a man enters his eighth decade on earth, he figured, it’s time to get his affairs in order. Make his peace. So Barnes had settled into this simple routine, cleaning up life’s small messes. And it was about darn time.

Midway through the job, Barnes looked up to see his great-niece, Ashley, walk in to say hello. She chatted with him about small things: her studies at nursing school, her grandmother’s lost lottery ticket. Wonderful, mundane affairs. After she said goodbye he returned to the work, dipping, lifting, swabbing. Good to see her. He enjoyed getting acquainted with his family. Even his son sometimes visited, now.

Later he would sweep this floor, maybe. Or shepherd the shopping carts from the parking lot. Probably talk with some old men, or women. Or children. Or men in work clothes. Or ladies carrying babies. A doctor, or a seamstress. The variety of people in life — in this new life — never failed to fascinate him.

“I wasted my life,” he would tell people, when they asked. And they asked often, because 71-year-old William Barnes was something of a relic, an intriguing criminal artifact unearthed by the erosion of years. And, truth be told, most men who live like Barnes lived don’t survive long enough to use a cane, like he did.

All that lay behind him now, though. He wore a white smock at work, which was nice. And he’d just bought a maroon 1987 Toyota Corolla. And he had a mobile phone, which he —

Two men approached, down the aisle. Detectives, moving with purpose among the groceries.

“You have the right to remain silent,” one of them said, cuffing Barnes’s wrists. He listened to the next bit about words being used in a court of law, and lawyers appointed, and all the rest. He had heard it before.

For the first time in his life, though, he had no idea why he needed the right to remain silent. Who did they think he was? The answer to that question rests at the heart of an upcoming trial that may, before it’s done, set a national legal precedent and change the way people think about justice.

Eventually, the police gave their answer: You’re a cop killer.

As the police loaded Barnes into the backseat of their car, he struggled to grasp what had happened. And at last the old man realized: A bullet he’d fired more than four decades earlier had finally completed its trajectory.